The week in review: Tories go quietly into the Eastleigh night
Everyone seems to have accepted the Tories are going to lose in Eastleigh, including the Tories. It will be a defining moment for the party. Will they carry on sleepwalking towards electoral oblivion? Or will they realise the horrors that await them in 2015 and rage against the dying of the light?
Maria Hutchings is a D-list candidate doing worse than expected in a readily winnable seat. She has proved resolutely off-message on gay marriage, abortion and Europe and then she added private schooling – the most emotional of all British political hang-ups – and her party leader's moral strength for good measure. By the end of the week the Tories put a sterile zone around her – huge barricades and a moat preventing journalists getting anywhere near her. She wasn't allowed on radio debates. She wasn't even really allowed to talk. Cameron's visit to the constituency on Thursday saw her given only five minutes to speak. She used the time to promise to "support" Dave in Westminster as he glared at her from a nearby chair. It was delivered in much the same way as a Soviet dissident might admit to having plotted the end of the state.
It was an unfair end to a week in which all the candidates should have been hung up to dry. Labour candidate John O'Farrell was revealed to have spent his youth wishing terrorists were better at killing and Lib Dem candidate Mike Thornton looked more than a little flip-floppy on housing and green spaces.
But the debate didn't stay focused on them; it narrowed to Hutchings. Even the leading lights of the Tory party couldn't change it. Michael Gove spent the week gabbling about the Shakespearian drama that was Chris Huhne while Boris Johnson chundered around the constituency muttering about "bloody Lib Dem voters". His campaigning method is marvellous. He marches up to potential voters, barks "have some bumf", and then stuffs fliers into their hands.
Things got even worse for the Conservatives when the Vicky Pryce trial ended with a surprise retrial. Their last chance was for images of Huhne being convicted to fill the front pages when Eastleigh voters went to the polls. Instead, the retrial starts on Monday and Huhne won't be sentenced until it's done.
The development was exceptional for what it said about British justice, however. Apparently modern jurors suffer from deficiencies of intellect so great they are unable to fulfil their function. Can a juror "come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it", the jury asked. Perfectly reasonable, except of course that it ignores the entire principle behind criminal trials. The judge offered a masterclass of emotional resignation in response. "The answer to that question is a firm no," he said. "It would be completely contrary to the directions I have given you."
Cameron missed most of the week's japes by hiding away in India and constantly commenting on things. He commented on Indian passports, he commented on Unilever, he commented on his wife and he commented, badly, on an essay by a novelist in which she had not been very nice to Kate Middleton. Mercifully, his attempt to drum up British trade and improve relations with one of the most important nations on earth barely got in the way of his commenting on things. He even commented on a British massacre – but he drew the line at an apology. It was a difficult line to walk, but he did it well. The massacre visit, that is. The rest of it was rubbish.
By the time he got back – visibly in a terrible mood – he went campaigning in Eastleigh, ensuring the party's defeat would also humiliate him personally. He then jetted off for a meeting with George Osborne and Lynton Crosby, his election strategists, to figure out how not to replicate the experience in 2015. That was a meeting no-one should envy. The Tories are going quietly into the night. If there's any escape, it'll come from a serious butting of heads in Chequers.